The Limits of Companionship

The Limits of Companionship May 2, 2013

In a piece on her Sexual Authenticity blog, Melinda Selmys calls loneliness and isolation “the most common cause of sexual sin.” In many respects, Selmys’ piece is wonderful — a real breath of fresh air. Unusually for a Catholic writer, she focuses on sexual sinners’ subjective sense of well-being, their happiness. Also somewhat off-script, she finds it “unhelpful” to blame recent changes in Western society or culture. She even affirms that the “modernist” conception of the self as an “autonomous rationality” is “very good in many respects.” At least on this point, no wholesale replacement rights with responsibilities appears on Selmys’ agenda.

But she stumbles, I think, in recommending “companionship” as an antidote for sexual promiscuity. That’s like saying apples are a substitute for oranges. The Greeks conceived of Eros as a kind divine madness or pleasurable wound. While pounding sand after Daphne, Apollo wheezes, “There is no herb to medicate my wound, and all the arts that save have failed [me].” Even while spiritualizing Eros, Plato allowed that its aim is possession of the beloved. Aristotle’s Philia, or a bond of mutual affection and concern between good people, is a much tamer animal. In its own right, for its own sake, it’s great; but it doesn’t satisfy the precise needs that will make you send Long Island iced teas to the girl down the bar in the push-up bra.

That’s not to say that companionship is worthless for whoever’s looking to remain chaste. It can provide a measure of affirmation, and it can certainly keep you busy. But if people were less promiscuous when they were less isolated, it wasn’t because they were too emotionally fulfilled to think about canoodling. It was because they were monitored, and when they transgressed, punished. Close-knit communities specialized in social control, not therapy. Without arguing that one is better than another, I’d say we do ourselves no favors by conflating the two. If small-town life offered the individual so much opportunity to realize her uniqueness, Emma Bovary would never have left the house.

Selmys might call this a case of the World’s “providing solutions that are of the world.” But she does promise that non-sexual forms of “knowing and being known” enable a person to “be generous and loving and to receive love and generosity without the clinging neediness of sex.” I’m not so sure. When I first began my catechesis, a member of our parish’s nomenklatura (and fellow aging single) seemed to detect in me a potential friend, or even a protégé. He continued to seek my company long after I’d made it clear, as nicely as I could, that I didn’t care for his. My sense of being pursued was so strong, so unexpected, and so disturbing, that when I wrote about it for this blog, I had to consider whether this guy’s interest could have been more carnal than spiritual.

If my intuition’s any good, it wasn’t. But the more I think about it, the surer I am that that guess was in the right ballpark. Without wanting to go to bed specifically with me, this person, consciously or not, was diverting his sexual energy into pastoral work in a general way. The diversion might well have made his life easier in certain respects, but it also served to invest his style with an intensity and a barely-concealed egotism that would seem, viewed with this new perspective, better suited to the bedroom. You might say he was looking to give love in all the wrong places.

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis describes a woman who “lives for others,” adding, “you can tell the others by the hunted expression.” That tips me off that the love switcheroo is a hard trick to pull off convincingly — certainly for the audience, and possibly more so for the performer. Out in the World, we say of a crabby person: “Don’t mind So-and-So. (S)He just needs to get laid.” Indelicate as that might sound, it may also contain a nugget of bona fide folk wisdom.

I’m quibbling for two reasons. First, I tend to mistrust any solution pitched with too much confidence, especially when the problem to be solved is as complicated as sex. Second — well, offering chumminess to Catholics is like shipping smart people to the Bay Area. The Church was created by, and for, joiners. Between Opus Dei, Neo-Cat, the various third orders, the Legion of Mary, and the good old K of C, anyone who thinks companionship would be helpful, should have no trouble finding it.

No, if anyone needs special encouragement (or maybe I mean deserves special recognition), I’d say it’s those loners-by-temperament who find community draining, if not downright threatening. Speaking as such a person, I’d have to say that, when it comes to avoidance of sexual sin, our natural introversion tends to work in our favor. Before you can sleep with someone, you usually have to talk with her.

But still, there are moments of desperation, and boldness can be purchased by the pint. In my case, it’s my very modernist determination to protect my autonomy and uniqueness that’s acted as the invisible cilice. (Who wants to be just another horny cheeseball among millions, anyway?) Don’t get me wrong — there’s a definite void where sex could be. But over time, it’s come to seem less like a void and more like a bottom line, a point beneath which I can’t fall. I may not be getting sex, but can’t nobody take any from me. For a zealous guardian of his personal boundaries, there’s real comfort in that.

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